Forty-two years is a long career in rock’n’roll. But when it comes to Booker T., who sits atop the highest shelf of soul, funk and R&B legends, that’s not the length of his career. That’s just how long it’s been since he released a record on Stax.
As far back as 1962, a teenaged Booker T. Jones fronted a band that genuinely changed the face of rock’n’roll, Booker T. & The M.G.’s. Playing the Hammond B3 organ out front of the instrumental group, Jones and his young friends were the studio band at Memphis’s Stax Records, recording the early work of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, Sam & Dave and dozens more. The group scored their own hits like Green Onions, were one of America’s first successful inter-racial groups, and were worshipped by the biggest names in music. When he departed for solo success in 1971, Booker T. Jones left an historic legacy at Stax Records.
After a Grammy-winning comeback album in 2009, new record Sound The Alarm is his third in recent years, and his first album on Stax in over 40 years. He laughs as he reflects on that number. “Yeah that’s an amazing number, but that’s correct, it’s been 40 years,” he says. “It’s great, like going home. You know, going home musically and physically also. They’re new people but they’re great people, there at the company. It’s emotional for me, because I lost so many people that I had at Stax but now I have new people to take their places. I’m lucky to still be doing it for that company.”
He says he returned because Stax has been able to stay more than just a company name. “The feeling is the same. The fact that they wanted me…and at my age I’m lucky to be wanted by a record company,” he chuckles. “But somehow they’ve kept the feeling of an innovative R&B company that makes new, cool music, and that’s what I’m trying to do for them now. You know, we’re not doing anything that’s so old or has been done before and that’s what we did at Stax this time.”
Sound The Alarm is packed with guest artists like Gary Clark Jr., Estelle, Anthony Hamilton and the Avila Brothers, and in an unusual move for a Jones album, many songs feature vocals. “Some of the stuff I wrote, and some of the stuff I came up with together with the people on the album,” he says. “It’s just amazing what happened. I wrote an original song with Vintage Trouble called ‘Your Love Is No Love’. We went into the studio with nothing, just like we did back in Memphis at Stax. And within six hours, at two in the morning, we were playing this brand new song! That’s fascinating to me, how that can happen. I’d known these guys for maybe a couple of weeks, and their talent just came out.“
While Jones thinks fondly of his time with The M.G.’s, he says he’s enjoying making records more than ever now the pressure is off for him to make a name for himself and he can work with emerging musicians, who he’s aware hold him in high regard. “Yeah there’s reverence, because the M.G.’s were the house band at Stax Records, and made its name as an instrumental group. We came up with rhythms that were new and original, so people are reverent – at first at least. The good thing about it is it’s all based around the Hammond B3 organ sound. That’s kinda the glue that holds it all together.”
BY SIMON TOPPER
Sound The Alarm out now through Stax/Universal. Booker T. plays the Factory Theatre on Saturday April 26 with Valerie June.